Top 10 Budget PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - Of the 17 new systems we tested this month, only two join the budget elite. Though pricey, Sys Technology Inc.'s new TaskMaster 600A offers solid performance and five open drive bays, no less. Micron Electronic Corp.'s diminutive ClientPro Cf, on the other hand, has no open bays or slots, but it squeaks onto the chart on the strength of its high-end corporate features. For the third month in a row, Micro Express's MicroFlex 600A retains its top-of-the-chart position.

1 MICRO EXPRESS MICROFLEX 600A

WHAT'S HOT: Its Athlon-600 processor propelled the MicroFlex 600A to a noteworthy score of 134 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, just shy of the new Sys Technology TaskMaster 600A's score of 135. For those over-stressed wrists, the Microsoft Corp. Natural Keyboard may return you to comfortable, quiet typing. The uncluttered interior of the midsize tower holds three open PCI slots and four open bays for lots of expansion. The MicroFlex also has the largest hard drive on the chart, a generous 18GB.

WHAT'S NOT: This well-rounded system is hard to knock, though business users might wish for a network card instead of a modem for connectivity.

WHAT ELSE: A well-organized system manual provides lots of information, including a detailed glossary, but the blurred images look like photocopies.

Colors on the 17-inch Impression 7VX monitor appeared deep and rich, and text remains crisp except at the highest resolution of 1600 by 1200. The ATI Rage Fury graphics card offers S-Video and composite output--boons for presenters.

The 6X DVD-ROM drive is a pleasant surprise at this unit's bargain price.

BEST USE: This is an excellent general-use system for a small office seeking performance on a shoestring.

2 AXIS SYSTEMS TERRA MX10

WHAT'S HOT: For $929, the Terra MX10 won't put much of a hole in your pocket. A detailed system manual includes helpful troubleshooting and upgrading information, as well as thorough documentation for the system's components. The 17-inch Axis 700EX monitor produces rich colors and crisp text, with only slight blurring at its maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024. The midsize tower's fairly neat interior serves up substantial room for expansion: four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and four open bays (one internal and three at the front of the case). However, the placement of the CPU makes the internal bay somewhat hard to reach.

WHAT'S NOT: Based on an AMD K6-2-550 CPU, this system earned a score of 124 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests. Although that's not bad for a budget system, it is the lowest posted by any Windows NT system we've tested (including a Celeron-500 machine with only 64MB of RAM).

WHAT ELSE: To get inside the midsize case, you must remove four screws that are easily lost, and reattaching the case takes some wiggling. The generic keyboard includes a detachable wrist rest, but getting the keys to register requires firm pressure. Well-labeled rear ports help make setup easier for novices.

BEST USE: It's not the fasted we've tested, but with its competitive, sub-$1000 price, the Terra MX10 should suit those more concerned with the bottom line than with horsepower.

New on the Chart

3 SYS TECHNOLOGY

TASKMASTER 600A

WHAT'S HOT: With a 135 score on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, this Athlon-600-powered Sys PC scored 4 points higher than the average for similarly equipped machines. With both a modem and a network interface installed, the TaskMaster 600A is ready for high- and low-speed connections to the Internet.

An uncluttered interior offers three open PCI slots and five open bays for expansion.

WHAT'S NOT: Sys Technology provides user manuals for some components, such as the monitor and the motherboard, but it lacks an overall user guide to aid with problems and simplify troubleshooting.

WHAT ELSE: You have to remove two screws to access the system's interior; the solid side panel slides off and back on smoothly thanks to well-designed guide rails. At the standard 1024 by 768 resolution, colors on the 17-inch Optiquest Q71 monitor looked a tad light. Text appeared crisp, though. Typing on the keyboard proved smooth and quiet, while Sleep, Wake Up, and Power buttons on the keyboard provide fast access to common system controls. Other extras include a case lock and Corel's WordPerfect Suite 8.

BEST USE: Ample upgrade room and fast performance make this system a good choice for small and home offices.

10 MICRON CLIENTPRO CF

WHAT'S HOT: The ClientPro Cf has a compact case, yet it includes a network interface card, remote management software, and two front-mounted USB ports (besides the two at the rear), plus Windows 2000 Professional Edition.

WHAT'S NOT: Except for two open memory sockets (partially blocked), the PC offers no expansion room. All the drive bays and expansion slots in our test unit were occupied. A low-end Celeron-433 powers the system, and our review unit came with a stingy 4.3GB hard drive (be sure to ask for a larger drive when you order--the case can hold only one). The 24X-40X CD-ROM drive is acceptable for this price. The PC offers the LANDesk system management tool, but if you use this feature, you're likely to take a modest hit in system performance.

WHAT ELSE: The Micron ClientPro Cf earned a 115 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, about average for similarly equipped systems running Windows 2000; however, we don't see many new machines with a Celeron-433 CPU these days, so it's hard to make exact comparisons. The system's 17-inch Micron 700DX monitor rendered deep colors, although text looked a bit fuzzy at 1024 by 768 resolution and higher. The user manual has helpful troubleshooting information, but documentation for individual components is lacking.

BEST USE: Micron's ClientPro Cf reflects an emerging trend toward small, relatively inexpensive corporate PCs.

Also of Note

A few systems didn't make the cut this month. The Micro Express MicroFlex-6A has a host of features often missing in the budget systems. A Microsoft Natural Keyboard permits smooth, quiet, comfortable typing, while an ATI Rage 128 Pro graphics board offers both S-Video and composite output as well as composite input for video editing. In addition, the MicroFlex sports an 8X DVD-ROM drive, and earned a 132 score on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--near the high end of the range for PIII-600B-equipped systems. The hard disk made grinding noises when working, and the 17-inch Impression 7V monitor displayed blurry text.

With an excellent business bundle that includes Microsoft Office 2000 SBE, the Dell Computer Corp. Dimension L500cx might have made our chart. But a pared-down configuration and subpar performance on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests held it back--its score of 97 ties for the lowest we've seen from a Celeron-500. The system offers easy service and upgrades, thanks to a case that opens without tools, and slide-out drive bays. Documentation includes excellent setup guides and a large reference and troubleshooting manual.

Tech Trend

Microsoft Plays Hardball With Your SoftwareWhen you buy a PC bundled with an operating system, you expect the package to include the full OS software on CD in case you need to do a full restore.

Right? Wrong. Microsoft has implemented a "medialess" policy requesting (read: demanding) that vendors ship systems with only a recovery CD or a backup disk image that may lack certain drivers or utilities of the full OS. The excuse? A tactic to combat piracy.

"We're not sure what it'll mean yet," says Ken Lam, vice president of marketing at PC vendor ABS. "We haven't seen a prototype of the recovery CD, so we don't know how much less consumers will be getting."

Brian Zucker, technology evangelist at Dell Computer, says the company will include the entire OS on its recovery CD, but you won't be able to pass the OS off to friends. "It uses a protection scheme specific to Dell machines," he says. Dell hasn't decided whether its CD will be tied to particular models.

ABS's Lam feels that Microsoft has a legitimate beef about piracy--not on the consumer level, but from major vendors illegally selling the OS CDs to smaller vendors. "It helps prevent a gray-marketing situation. Big vendors with a direct license to Microsoft have lower costs for the CDs, and some first- and second-tier vendors sell the OS to smaller system dealers. Microsoft doesn't like that," he says.

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